Calm Parenting: Anger management in children and teens

Many parents want to know how to manage anger in their children. Maybe your child acts out and is belligerent, and you’re at a loss to help him control those feelings. Not only is it upsetting to see, it impacts the entire family.

But here’s the truth: Whenever we want to manage someone else’s feelings, particularly our child’s, not only is it impossible, but it will also make the child angrier. No one likes to feel managed or controlled, and trying to figure out ways to contain someone else’s intensity will just add fuel to the fire. The natural reaction for a child—or anyone else—is to resist feeling controlled.

If you’re trying to figure out how to manage your child’s anger, you might want to take a closer look at the basic relationship patterns that exist between the two of you currently. Is your pattern one in which you try to manage him in other ways as well? Do you carry the common parenting myth that you’re responsible for the outcome of your child’s behaviors, feelings and thoughts? If you believe you’re able to succeed at that, your child will go out of his way to show you that you’re just not that powerful by resisting you through defiance and anger.

Believe it or not, the best way to help manage your child’s angry emotions is to stop trying to manage them. Recognize that you’re not responsible for how he feels or behaves; you’re only responsible for how you feel and behave toward him. Allow him to have his own feelings, perspectives and identity. Be with him as he experiences intense feelings of anger, rather than jumping into his box and trying to make him feel differently. This is when you can start being instrumental in helping him with this issue. If you’re emotionally untangled from your child, you will also see him more clearly and realistically, rather than from your own perspective.

For example, let’s say your 14-year-old daughter wants to stay out late and asks for your permission. This situation already has a catch, because as far as she’s concerned, there’s only one right answer and she already knows it. But let’s say your answer is no. She immediately starts tantruming, throwing things, and threatening you. Her anger is in full force and continues to escalate. When you try to give her your logical reasons for saying no, she just gets more infuriated.

It’s very easy to want to manage her anger at this point by giving in to her wishes—or by yelling or screaming back. But instead, pause, breathe, and give the problem back to her. If she wants permission for something, don’t feel compelled to say “yes” or “no” so quickly. Let her do the work instead of you feeling it’s your job. How do you do that? You can say, “I’m willing to consider letting you stay out past your curfew after the homecoming game, but how will you make it work for us? Dad and I give you curfews for your own safety. If we are to say yes, and I’m not promising that we will, what steps would you take to ensure your safety? And if we do say yes to your request, how will you make us feel like responsible parents when you are out until one in the morning?” In other words, it’s her job to get you to yes. This changes the pattern and often de-escalates a power struggle very effectively.

But what about those terrible, awful temper tantrums? We all want to manage those because they’re hard to take. (I’m not talking here about a tantrum where your child is frustrated and just needs a hug—I’m talking about an “I want my way” tantrum.) It doesn’t matter if your child is three or 43, no one likes the feeling of trying to be emotionally controlled or contained. What is a child, or an adult for that matter, saying through his or her tantrums? “I am not getting my way; I want my way; and I want that to change now!” But again, trying to stop your child’s fury will only make it worse.

Like many parents, you may have used different types of anger management on your child in the past when he was in the throes of his explosion. You might have given in to his demands, or gotten angry and threatened him with punishment. You may even have tried reasoning with him. But any of these attempts probably just prolonged the tantrum and deepened its intensity. Remember, your child feels like the tantrum was a success once he has an audience and/or gets a reaction from you. What you want to do instead is make the annoying behavior as ineffective as possible—and to do this, you must ignore it.

When ignoring it is no longer possible, separate yourself from the tantruming child. Separation is necessary until the tantrum is over. Understand that this is not a punishment. Let your child know that he’s welcome to return when he is calm. In effect, you’re saying to your child, you are welcome to tantrum but not around me. And it won’t get you what you want.” If you continually make the behavior ineffective, there will be fewer tantrums.

Teens who are oppositional, defiant or angry much of the time will frequently try to draw you into arguments and power struggles. The best thing you can do is be your solid self and figure out what your limits are: what will you or won’t you put up with? Then disengage and let your child learn how to regulate his emotions of disappointment and frustration. And when I say “disengage,” I mean truly disengage. One word of caution: disengaging can enrage people, so don’t do it as a reactive, emotional response to your child.


Today Gender

…with Thelma Asantewaa

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